PATERSON, NJ – Frustrated by the state’s plans to retain full control over Paterson schools, the Board of Education Wednesday night decided to retain an attorney to “take all actions necessary” to appeal that decision.
The school board is looking for control over the one area in the New Jersey Department of Education’s ranking system in which Paterson Public Schools achieved passing scores in the past two state evaluations – governance.
“We should be able to act like a Board of Education,’’ said President Willa Mae Taylor.
“It’s time the state gives us the control we need to run the district,’’ said board vice president Alex Mendez. “I believe they have failed to run our district.’’
“This is not just Paterson,’’ said school board member, Jonathan Hodges. “Newark has found itself in the same position.’’
The state took control of Paterson schools in 1991 to reform the city’s failing education system. Two decades later, however, Paterson schools continue to struggle as most city students are unable to reach proficiency levels on state testing.
In a September letter announcing that the state would maintain control over Paterson schools, acting New Jersey Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf cited the district’s ongoing academic problems as the basis for that decision.
But Board of Education members have argued that it was unfair for Cerf to blame local officials for the academic failings because the state oversees instruction through its appointment of the district’s superintendent. In fact, Paterson Schools Commissioner Christopher Irving argued that the four categories in which Paterson schools still fall short of state standards are areas over which the school board has no control - instruction, personnel, operations and fiscal management.
“That means the state has not done the job of meeting the standards they set for themselves,’’ Irving said.
Paterson school officials are only looking to retake control in governance, not in the other four categories.
New Jersey’s system for evaluating school districts and determining whether they ought to be under state control is called Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or QSAC. Paterson and Newark are the two districts in New Jersey that the state controls. In July, Cerf opted to retain control over Newark schools even though the district achieved passing scores in four of the five categories. Newark is filing a legal challenge to the decision.
Under state control, the education department appoints the superintendent who has final say over all aspects of the school district’s operations. The Board of Education votes on contracts, personnel reports and budgets, but the superintendent has the power to override those votes. For the most part, the elected board members serve in an advisory role.
If Paterson regained control over governance, the state still would have power over the budget, hiring and the curriculum. But the school board would get one major decision - the choice of superintendent, said Irene Sterling, of the Paterson Education Fund, an advocate who has followed the state control saga from its inception 20 years ago.
At present, Paterson’s state-appointed superintendent Donnie Evans is in the third year of a three-year contract. In August, the state announced it would revise Evans’ contract to include an option for an additional year if city schools met certain performance standards. That revised deal was supposed to be in place by October 1, but has not yet been completed.
Local education officials previously had voted that they want Evans retained, partly to put a stop to the revolving door of superintendents that has undermined the continuity of leadership that some feel is needed to improve city schools.
The resolution on the appeal of Cerf’s QSCA decision did not say exactly what legal measures the Board of Education would take. Officials said the attorney, Kendal Coleman, has agreed to handle the case pro bono, or for free.